An Interview with Genevieve Hansen, Minneapolis Firefighter
Genevieve Hansen is a firefighter with the Minneapolis Fire Department. She was off-duty when she walked by police officers arresting George Floyd and saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd's neck. Women's Human Rights Director Rosalyn Park interviewed Genevieve Hansen about her experience that day and her reflections on intervening when human rights violations are unfolding.
Photo credit: Genevieve Hansen.
Rosalyn Park: You are a firefighter with the Minneapolis Fire Department. Could tell us what made you decide to go into that field?
Genevieve Hansen: My mom and dad were really good about encouraging us to think outside of the box with what we wanted to do with our lives. My parents come from a background of working with adults with mental illness. So I always have been exposed to vulnerable people. And almost immediately, as soon as I could get a job, I went into lifeguarding, nannying, and working with a real large range of people with disabilities or other conditions.
And so I've found my calling in caring for people and making them feel like any other human while doing it. I have my background in sports and teamwork and being captain of my teams. So it all felt fitting. I was 16 when I came up to my mom, and I said, "I'm going to be a firefighter."
And I thought it was that easy, but it wasn't. It took me a long time and a few applications to get started. It was seven years after I graduated from high school.
RP: So you have been on the firefighting team for about three years now. Can you talk about being a firefighter and what it's been like for you?
GH: I will say that I have had a very unusual first three years. (And my coworkers love to remind me of that). Like with the pandemic and George Floyd's murder almost right off the bat. We also got a couple of really intense fires where we had victims and a lot of hard calls right away. So my experiences shook me.
On a daily basis, I work 24 hours at a time and stay at the firehouse. And at any point in time, we can respond to medical calls ranging from shortness of breath to a full cardiac arrest. There are a lot of overdoses, car accidents, and structural fires. Anything can happen at any point in time. If you have to pee, you've gotta pee right then, because you could be out for the rest of the night [laughs]. And that is only one aspect of the job. The other part is getting along with 400, nearly 500 firefighters, predominantly white men.
RP: Thanks for painting that picture to help us understand what the day-to-day job is like for you. I want to go back to that day when George Floyd was killed: how did your training as a first responder serve you that day in the bigger picture?
GH: I feel like everything slowed down and sped up at the same time. I can't speak for everyone, but it was like this tunnel vision: understanding that there was all this intensity, but it needed to slow down in order to help and to get them off his neck. You know, if I'm in work mode and at work, I'm able to read the notes on the computer as we drive to a call. I'm able to run through my head of what this situation is going to look like.
I was off-duty and listening to music on a walk, hanging out at a community garden around the corner, just thinking and trying to relax. With this line of work, you really have to be peaceful on your days off and just try to push out the stuff that you've seen. And I have the picture, before the video [of George Floyd], that I took of this really beautiful flower. So I was just in this very strange headspace, and it just was indescribable.
RP: And all of a sudden you walk into this situation on that day. I think a lot of people would not have done what you did. Why do you think you did it?
GH: I don't know. I think about it often, if not every day. I run different things in my head. One of my thoughts is that I've been certified in CPR for a long time. If I wasn't, would I have been able to contribute that day? It's about having the confidence of feeling like those cops there were feeling. Like I was part of them, and they were part of us, you know? Like we were kind of in the "brotherhood sort-of-thinking" and that that was going to help. I kind of think that gave me confidence to act, and I don't know if I would've done the same thing if I wasn't a firefighter. I felt, "Oh, this can be my scene because I'm trained to help. And I work with these people." So I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I had not been a firefighter. I'm not sure how I would have handled it. The way I like to think about treating people on every call that I go on is that somebody loves this person. And if one of my family members was having a medical emergency, I would want them to treat them like their own family or how they would want their family to be treated.
I think all the time about all those people who were standing there, watching and wishing that they would've called 911, or stepped in themselves and tried to stop it. I didn't have time to think about all those things, but I think it plants the seed for standing up for somebody.
RP: It absolutely does. And I think that that's such an important point because you had a choice to act and you did. That kind of leads me to another question: where does your compass come from?
GH: I have very little patience for people if they're not being vulnerable with me. But when they are vulnerable in some way with me, I don't have a hard time being patient and loving and putting myself in their shoes and understanding why they might be there. I don't know where that comes from, but it's so ingrained in me. My mom is that way totally. And we've taken care of great-grandparents, grandparents, family members, friends. She's always the caregiver and she is totally inspiring to me. So I think that I've learned that there's no other way.
RP: In that moment of crisis, you found a way to act. I'm wondering, how do we approach this call to be supportive of Black people in this movement?
GH: I would have done that for any person. So I think that's where this starts: if somebody is being hurt or mistreated, you should step in for them, no matter what race they are. But we all know that.
People of color and, Black men specifically, are targeted. So knowing that, we want to make sure and keep an eye out for your surroundings. Like if something feels wrong, it may be that you just need to step in. Because you can't necessarily stop and think about it. It can be an emergency like that. What I would recommend is starting conversations at home and at work with your families and friends about what you might do if you were to come across something similar. Because although we know that this happens all the time, I had never thought about it before. And there's a lot of things that I would have done differently. I think that it's about planting that seed so that you don't have to think about it too much. You can trust and talk about what you would do with your friends and your family. And along those lines, I would encourage everybody to become CPR certified. Or just look it up on YouTube so that you can offer medical assistance, because at least the offer that it's there on-site goes a long way. It's not difficult at all to do that. And also, if you need to call 911 on the police, you need to call 911 on the police. So if you see something, call 911 right away.
RP: It's a clear directive and it's a call to action. That's actually a good segue into the next question .What would you say to the other bystanders--the people who are just like you, who are not Black and seeing what's happening?
GH: I want to tell them that you're more safe being a white person than anybody else in this space. I don't want to encourage anybody to physically step in, but I would remind them, you do have the privilege to come out of a situation more safely than anybody else. Your voice might be heard or trusted more than somebody else. Use those privileges that you have. And also keep in mind the safety of those other bystanders that are of color because anything can happen, and I wouldn't want anybody else to have gotten hurt that day because of trying to save George Floyd.
I mean, we can be barriers. I mean, not physically, but verbally. We can put ourselves in between the threat and somebody dying or being hurt and other bystanders to keep them safe. It's a really hard and uncomfortable conversation. I think people are shying away from saying too much or even talking about anything right now when it comes to race. And that's really sad because, it's important that we use our privilege to protect.
RP: What do you think we need to be able to solve this problem? What needs to happen to get to the point where people aren't getting hurt and where Black lives really do matter?
GH: I think everybody wants to be able to figure that out. Like I said before about considering that somebody loves everybody, and everybody has people that love them. They have families, friends. And just to think that way, because we're all human. If my brother was using a counterfeit bill, would I be okay with any of that happening? Absolutely not. Would you? Absolutely not. Nobody would be okay with their loved ones being treated that way. I don't care if your loved one murdered somebody, they deserve to come out safely and then have their consequences later. So I think we need to think that way and consider everyone as equal humans.
I always tell people that we as firefighters - we don't want anybody's house to start on fire. But when we get to do what we're trained to do, we enjoy at least feeling helpful and getting to do what we were trained to do.
But the problem is that police can actually cause those situations where they get to do the things that they were trained to do. They have that power. Like we're not going to set housefires, but they sure can find somebody to take to the ground. I will say that I don't think that everybody deserves to do this. It's a huge responsibility. You have beautiful, beautiful people in this city to take care of and you need to be ready.
And calling 911. Of course, in this situation, why would you trust 911 or dispatch to send help that will actually help, when you have the police right there? But there are good officers out there. And do not hesitate to call 911 because the thing that I regret the absolute most is not calling 911 earlier. And it haunts me.
RP: In your testimony at Chauvin's trial, you said you were worried about the safety of the people of color and the Black men at the scene and that you didn't want to escalate the situation out of concern for their safety. And that is a really unique perspective to be thinking about that not everybody would have had. How did you reach that perspective?
GH: I think growing up in Minneapolis reading and seeing the news, and I had gone on enough calls where the police were restraining Black men in a really aggressive way. Sadly, it's a part of life way too often. So I just know that they're vulnerable. And I mean, he [Chauvin] was threatening us to get back onto the sidewalk, and he kept doing it. I knew that that if George was being killed, then they would just kill anybody.
RP: Is there anything else you want people to know?
GH: I really want to drive home having this discussion. I wish that I had just run through things like this in my head, because you know, it happens often enough that you may find yourself in this position. Being able to offer medical assistance gave me the confidence to step in. I don't want anybody else to experience that, but I've seen footage and I know that there were two white men across the street, just gawking. Don't be that person. And call 911 right away. I could've been more prepared had I just thought about it, because it happens all the time.
RP: Nobody could've predicted that they would ever be in that situation. But now, you know. Especially with your words and what you're saying: be prepared, have the confidence, and go get your CPR certification so you can step up with confidence to help.